Best of the Blogs 2017

If you’re like me, you’re always searching for interesting Doctor Who-related content on the internet. I don’t mean reviews of stories or the latest Doctor Who news. They’re as prolific as adipose. I mean thought-provoking articles having to do with concepts and themes that transcend individual episodes, that delve a little deeper into the meaning of the program or the effects that it produces. So I have gathered together my top ten picks for 2017–no news (which becomes old within a few days), no reviews (which are great, but center attention on only one story). Yes, that eliminates about 98% of what is available out there on the blogs. I hope you find all or some of them valuable, enjoyable, or engaging.

10. Zachary Schulman, Letting Go of the Doctor

Just coming in at the tail end of the year, this essay from Doctor Who TV looks at the 12th Doctor’s era and its legacy. What did we learn from Twelve? Letting go may never have been this hard.

9. Joy P., The Doctor’s a Woman, and This is Awesome for Men

The posts made in 2017 about the casting of Jodie Whittaker as the next Doctor are as numerous as the stars in the universe. Three made my list, because I think they either best capture the essence of the conversations or approach the subject from an interesting angle. Joy from Deep South Whovian, has a psychological take on the casting. Most sites defending the casting of a woman as the Doctor have emphasized the reasons why it will be good for women or why men need not be mad about it. Joy, mother of a son who watches the show, talks about the benefits for men and boys.

8. Matt Hills, Casting a female Doctor Who wasn’t so bold – choosing another white male would have been really risky

Writing over at The Conversation, Matt Hills offers an argument that Doctor Who is actually a little bit behind the curve on the new casting and is playing catch-up.

7. Colin Baker, I was the Doctor and I’m over the moon that at last we have a female lead

I’m not sure The Guardian qualifies as a blog, but come on, an essay by one of the Doctors? And it’s a fabulous piece too!

6. Daniel Whitaker,  Me & Who- Mental Health Day

October 10 was Mental Health Day, and Daniel Whitaker opens up to us about his personal experience with depression and how Doctor Who helped him through his most difficult times. From The Gallifrey Archive.

5. Alyssa Franke, Reflecting on Grief

Alyssa Franke experienced the deaths of three family members in 2017, and Doctor Who provided her with some relief. As she writes at Whovian Feminism, “Every impossible scenario ever dreamed up in grief is possible in a show where time and space aren’t boundaries any more. We’re free to imagine the impossible and indulge in denial and bargaining for just a little while longer.”

4. Sarah Barrett, How Often Does Doctor Who Pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test?

Back in 2015, Barrett did a full research study of how well Doctor Who performed according to the Bechdel Test, and in 2017 she updated her results, which can be found at The Mary Sue. A lot of work went into this study, and although Barrett’s view of the value of the Bechdel Test has evolved somewhat, it still sheds light on how well female characters are portrayed by the program’s writers.

3. Samuel Maleski, The Moffat Era and three-dimensional screenwriting

If you want to delve deeper into the intellectual underpinnings of the show, Downtime is probably the best blog to visit. This essay by Maleski (a.k.a. TIBÈRE) is one of the best of the year. It argues that Steven Moffat has changed, and continues to change, the status of the Doctor Who writer. A great read.

2. Christel Dee, Why Bill Potts Proves Positive LGBT+ Representation Matters

You probably know her from Doctor Who: The Fan Show, but this essay, published on the Time Ladies blog, is an example of Dee expressing herself through the written word. She explains how the creation of the Bill Potts character is so very important to members of the LGBT+ community around the world.

1. A.L. Belmont, Whoniverse, Bring Out Your Dead: Death, Resurrection, and the Obligations of Doctor Who

This epic essay (in four parts) from the Downtime blog is a magnificent exploration of the way the deaths of regular characters in Doctor Who are and should be handled. Belmont treats the death-resurrection combination in the abstract in the first two parts. She examines the specific cases of Clara and Bill in part 3, and in part 4 she looks at death and resurrection in the context of the show’s ethos.

Honorable mentions

Matt Greer, Don’t call Doctor Who a “Children’s Show” – It’s so much more than that

Anonymous, Thoughts on Thirteen

Connor Johnston, A Female Doctor: Seeing the Wood for the Trees

Kevin Burnard, The Power of the Not Dead

Let me know your thoughts on these essays, and if you think I missed any of the great ones, please comment and provide a link.

Happy reading!

 

The Eaters of Light: Themes and Messages

Now that I have had sufficient time to mull over the penultimate story of Series 10 of Doctor Who, The Eaters of Light, which aired on June 17, I thought I’d put finger to keyboard and offer my thoughts on the story’s themes and messages. Doctor Who writers have all, in some way, delivered a specific view of the world of their day—both the way we view ourselves and how we interact with the world around us. That’s what science fiction does. Rona Munro  is known for her classic series story, Survival, which explicitly tackled social and cultural issues at the time. If reminiscences are accurate, some of her weighted dialogue was edited out for being too explicitly political. Today’s world is a bit different, so when she was announced to return to pen the present story, we expected her to offer her point-of-view on certain issues, and she did. In The Eaters of Light, Munro is open about her views of war, peace, and sexuality.

Empire

Doctor Who has many times criticized the construction and maintenance of empire, and we are not surprised when the subject comes up in a story dealing with one of the most famous (or infamous) empires in history. Kar says to the Doctor, “Let me tell you about the Romans. They are the robbers of this world. When they’ve thieved everything on land, they’ll rob the sea. If their enemies are rich, they’ll take all they have. If their enemies are poor, they’ll make slaves of them. Their work is robbery, slaughter, plunder. They do this work and they call it empire. They make deserts and they call it peace.” The Doctor responds with a one-liner, “Yeah, but you’ve got to love the indoor toilets, yeah?” It’s a joke, but also a criticism, because there are indeed people who look back on Roman civilization fondly because of their technology and other achievements. Indeed, the Romans were impressive in the things that they built and developed. For this reason, many are willing to overlook the cruel elements of Roman civilization and give them a pass. The Doctor here, by his joke, urges us to put things into perspective. What’s more important?

The Ultimate Weapon

And yet the Doctor also criticizes Kar and the Picts for what they have done. Because they want the Romans dead and gone, they have unleashed a power that will not only kill the Romans, but everyone else. The secret weapon is more dangerous than the enemy on whom they use the weapon. Munro here may be commenting on the development of the atomic bomb–the ultimate weapon, which helped the U.S. to win the war against the Japanese in the 1940’s, but the creation of which later threatened the existence of everyone on the planet. “To protect a muddy little hillside, you doomed your whole world,” says the Doctor.

Immaturity of Warmongering

The telepathic field generated by the TARDIS allows not only the Doctor and company to understand the Romans and the Picts, but also the Romans and the Picts to understand each other, which provides a potential for them to make peace. Instead they get into an argument. “You sound like children,” says Lucius. “You sound like children too,” answers Kar. This may be the result of understanding each other’s languages for the first time, or it may be an insult, or both. But the Doctor’s response, “You both sound like children,” carries a different meaning. Their inability to come to terms and hurling of accusations towards one another sounds like schoolyard squabbling. The Doctor is not having it. “Okay, kids, pay attention. She slaughtered your legion. You slaughtered everything that she loves. Now, you all have a choice. You can carry on slaughtering each other till no one is left standing, or you grow the hell up!” This is Munro’s remark on the frequent inability of nations to come to terms with each other and their propensity to be lured into fights too easily. In doing so, she suggests, they behave not as adults, but as children. Munro is not saying this applies across the board to all nations and all wars–indeed the Doctor says they have a “new war” to fight against the creatures. So indeed some battles need to be fought, but there are many that have been waged in which human beings have been needlessly killed, simply because of the immature behavior of the leaders of the two sides.

Why Peace?

In that same scene (the most important scene in the episode), Bill yells at the two sides: “There is no time for fighting!” In defense of her side, Kar turns to Lucius and explains, “We never wanted to fight! We lived in peace, and then you came and laid waste to everything and everyone we loved. All you understand is war!” Bill interjects: “No, he understands. Now, he’s wondering, ‘Why?’”

Now, on the surface level, Bill just may be saying that Lucius is wondering how he is able to understand Kar’s language, which he has not been able to comprehend before. “You speak Latin?” Lucius asks. “I don’t,” Kar answers. “Neither do I, not a word,” Bill says. “And I don’t speak whatever they speak, either,” she continues, showing that she speaks from a neutral position.

But the wordplay works in another sense. Bill may be saying that Lucius does not understand why he is fighting. He has experienced pain, loss, fear, and isolation as Kar has, and he now is wondering what it was all for, or is wondering why it needs to continue. This openness to question war’s purpose or value encourages him to consider peace. And this makes us, the audience, ask ourselves, how can peace between two large enemies be made? What is the driving force behind it? Is it the empathy that Lucius is experiencing? Is it the need to fight a common enemy? The need to survive? Or is it the pointlessness of the war itself?

How Sexually Liberated is Bill?

One might think that a lesbian woman from the present day put into a conversation about sexuality with ancient Romans would have an opportunity to teach backward men to be more enlightened. In fact, it is the other way around. The Romans school Bill a bit. They consider her the backward one, because she limits her preference to merely one gender. This exchange is intended to demonstrate that, though we live in “modern” times, this does not mean we have the most progressive ideas in history on every subject. This conversation is reminiscent of the parallel one on race that Bill had with the blue alien in Oxygen. Bill’s horizons continue to expand.

This is not to say that Munro’s presentation of Roman sexuality is entirely accurate. In reality they were not as progressive as they sound in this story. Roman men were expected to marry women and have plenty of children. They often had same-sex relationships on the side. In other words, men were allowed to have affairs. But the same standard did not apply to women. They had to be completely devoted and loyal to their husbands and family. Lesbians generally were execrated. Munro is not necessarily denying this, but she papers it over a bit in order to make her point.

The Case Against “The Feast of Steven”

For those of you who may not know, “The Feast of Steven” was the first-ever Doctor Who Christmas Special. It was broadcast on Christmas day 1965 and starred William Hartnell as the Doctor, Peter Purves as Steven, and Jean Marsh as Sara.

If you’ve heard anything about it, chances are it had something to do either with how Hartnell broke the fourth wall during it to wish everyone a Merry Christmas or how awful it is (though it does have its supporters). We might think of it as the 1960s “Dimensions in Time.”

In the past, fans of Doctor Who have raised the question of whether “The Feast of Steven,” because of its poor quality, should be considered canon. I’m not one of those who believes that episodes of the show should be dropped from Doctor Who mythology simply because they are bad, though it admittedly is tempting. Moreover, canon is determined by the makers of the show, not the fans. Nevertheless, I believe there are several reasons for believing that “The Feast of Steven” was never intended by the showmakers to be part of the Doctor Who story.

1. Although it was aired during The Daleks’ Master Plan, the narrative of that story is not advanced in “The Feast of Steven.” In the middle of the episode, the Doctor and crew take a moment to give the audience a recap of The Daleks’ Master Plan up until that point, but the story is not continued in any way during this episode. It simply is set aside, so that the TARDIS team can go on an entirely unrelated romp. No Time Destructor, no Daleks, no Mavic Chen, nothing at all from The Daleks’ Master Plan. Said Story Editor Donald Tosh: “We realised that we were going to go out on Christmas Day at a time when everyone would be full of food and drink and not interested in trying to pick up the threads of a long-running story, so we had to make that a sort-of one-off episode” (TARDIS, vol. 3, no 3).

2. Other than Hartnell, Purves, and Marsh, the cast is entirely different. Take a look at the credits. You won’t see Kevin Stoney, Roy Evans, or any of the cast from The Daleks’ Master Plan. You won’t even hear Peter Hawkins or David Graham doing a Dalek voice. We have a whole different cast, and they will appear only in this episode.

3. Elements in the story suggest it is not to be taken seriously. There is a spoof of Z-Cars in the episode, which was an idea that Donald Tosh suggested to writer Dennis Spooner (Doctor Who Magazine #191, 12). The Doctor and crew take part in an actual silent movie with their spontaneous dialogue in subtitles. There is considerable hyperbole, such as in the beginning, when the Doctor says there is a dangerously polluted atmosphere outside, and it turns out to be present-day London. But perhaps the best evidence that the episode is not to be taken seriously is when the Doctor breaks the fourth wall to wish the audience a happy Christmas. Although Donald Tosh years later recalled this as being an ad-lib by Hartnell, the scene was, in fact, scripted and rehearsed that way. A true Doctor Who episode would not have done this, and in the Doctor Who universe this cannot have occurred.

4. When The Daleks’ Master Plan was licensed to other countries and sold on film, “The Feast of Steven” was not included. Why would BBC Worldwide sell The Daleks’ Master Plan without including “The Feast of Steven”? (Richard Molesworth, Wiped!, pp. 136, 170). I suppose you could argue that they thought no one would want a Christmas episode. But if “The Feast of Steven” were a vital episode in The Daleks’ Master Plan, they couldn’t tell the story without it. And yet they could. The obvious reason they left it out is because it did not belong.

Bottom line: I think we should reconsider the place of “The Feast of Steven” in the Doctor Who TV canon. If a copy is ever found, let’s place it alongside “Dimensions in Time” on our “alternative universe” shelf and keep Z-Cars and EastEnders in their own dimensions.

 

Doctor Who and the Story Titles

Why do people keep saying there are not proper names for multi-part Doctor Who stories in recent years? I don’t know what everyone is fussing about. The names are right there for all to see. The name of the recent series finale is called World Enough and Time/The Doctor Falls. Perfectly good name for a Cyberman origin story, dont’cha know, although I also liked the earlier one about the Doctor visiting a parallel universe and encountering the creation of the Cybermen there. That one was called Rise of the Cybermen/The Age of Steel. I mean, that’s what I hear everyone calling it, anyway. And it’s a perfectly fine story title. It’s right up there with The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances or Dark Water/Death in Heaven. The latter was even the name of a movie I went to see.

I was talking to a writer; he’s not a Doctor Who fan, so I had to school him. I was telling him about the cool Davros story from series 9, and he asked me what the title was. “The Magician’s Apprentice/The Witch’s Familiar,” I said.

“No, no,” he replied. “Not the names of the individual episodes. What is the name of the whole story?”

The Magician’s Apprentice/The Witch’s Familiar.

“That’s not a story title.”

“Yes, it is.”

“That’s just two episode names.”

I rolled my eyes. “I know the difference between an episode title and a story title. That’s why ‘The Magician’s Apprentice’ is not a whole story. Neither is ‘The Witch’s Familiar.’ The story is The Magician’s Apprentice/The Witch’s Familiar.”

“Do you mean The Magician’s Apprentice AND the Witch’s Familiar?”

“No. There is no and. It’s The Magician’s Apprentice/The Witch’s Familiar. Don’t forget the forward slash. The forward slash is part of the name.”

“You’re crazy.”

Ignorant, huh? He just doesn’t get it. He left before I could tell him about Davros, and the Daleks, and Missy.

That Master story was good, but not my favorite. I still can’t figure out whether the best Master story is Utopia/The Sound of Drums/Last of the Time Lords or The End of Time Part 1/The End of Time Part 2. Which is yours? Oh wait, you prefer The Sound of Drums/Last of the Time Lords over Utopia/The Sound of Drums/Last of the Time Lords? Yeah, I suppose that is a slightly different name for a slightly different story. 

You know what is an awful title? Human Nature. It’s the name of a novel by Paul Cornell. I am working up a petition to get it changed to its true and proper title, as seen in the TV series: Human Nature/Family of Blood.

So, in my mind, the argument over what the stories are named is completely unnecessary–kind of like the unnecessary argument the Doctor has with his companions in The Edge of Destruction/The Brink of Disaster. An oldie but a goodie.

Actually, my favorite story from the Hartnell era is World’s End/The Daleks/Day of Reckoning/The End of Tomorrow/The Waking Ally/Flashpoint. It’s a classic. To be sure, Mission to the Unknown/The Nightmare Begins/Day of Armageddon/Devil’s Planet/The Traitors/Counter Plot/Coronas of the Sun/The Feast of Steven/Volcano/Golden Death/Escape Switch/The Abandoned Planet/Destruction of Time is a close second, but I prefer World’s End/The Daleks/Day of Reckoning/The End of Tomorrow/The Waking Ally/Flashpoint just a little bit more.

Series 10 Finale: Themes and Messages

The two-part finale of Series 10 of Doctor Who, which aired on June 24 and July 1, has now had a chance to settle in our minds a bit, so I thought it might be advantageous to look back on it to examine its themes and messages. It delivered a lot of flash and action, but much also in the way of a point-of-view. It’s always interesting to see how a television series responds to the current social, or cultural, or political climate. They all in some way deliver a specific view of the world of their day—both the way we view ourselves and how we interact with the world around us. It can’t be helped. But sometimes it presents a message on purpose.

Inner Strength

The two episodes, “World Enough and Time” and “The Doctor Falls,” are often seen as the great swansong for Peter Capaldi, but even though the Doctor is referred to in the title of the second episode, this is very much Bill’s story. She is the protagonist, as can be seen from the fact that she gets the most air-time, even in comparison with the Doctor.

We follow Bill through the story, from her assisting the Doctor in Missy’s reformation, to her getting shot by the blue man, to her being in the hospital, to her friendship (and later betrayal) by Razor, to her conversion into a Cyberman, to her rescuing the Doctor, to her helping to save the people of the 507th floor from the other Cybermen, and to her own deliverance by Heather. The story is very much in the horror genre, and even though Steven Moffat (the writer) uses many of the common tropes, Bill doesn’t just succumb to them as would a typical throwaway character in a horror flick. Through it all she shows an inner strength, a resilience, that the average person would never exhibit.

Our journey is always a series of ups and downs. Challenges come and become obstacles. If its one thing that we all are is inconsistent. Sometimes we have the ability to cope with the stressful situations that life throws at us and sometimes not so much. The one constant is you, and how you deal with all the change. If you are weak inside, you will be batted about like a rowboat in a hurricane. But those who cultivate inner strength are able to weather any storm and can travel great distances at speed when the seas are calm.

Bill knows who she is. Her personality is the foundation of her power. Before she became a Cyberman, she was comfortable in her own skin, so that even when her “skin” was changed, she did not lose herself.  As the Doctor tells her, “You are so strong. You’re amazing. Your mind has rebelled against the programming. It’s built a wall around itself. A castle made of you, and you are standing on the battlements, saying no. No, not me.”

Think of all the people who have been converted into Cybermen who were not able to resist (basically everybody else). This says something about the extraordinariness of Bill. The absolute worst is thrown at her (and it has to be, so that the degree of her resilience can be demonstrated), and she defies it all. This is why she tells the Doctor she is glad he remembers “how I’m usually all about women and, and kind of people my own age.” She wants to emphasize to him that she is still in there. Despite the soulless-looking Cyber exterior, inside she retains her loves and her interests, the things that are at odds with Cyber thinking. We see Bill as she sees herself, as human; this was a nice way to show the mind of Bill in the story. Long before this Bill centered herself in the universe and understand her role in something bigger and worthy. She is optimistic in the face of negativity, and she resists the messages that try to make her act or feel a different way. The fact is, the happier you are with yourself, the less the outside world can damage you. The Doctor theorizes, “All that time, living under the Monks, you learned to hang on to yourself.” Insecurity is an inner-strength killer.  Bill exhibits little of it.

So Bill, not the Doctor, is the hero of this particular story. Note how she retains her agency even as a Cyberman. Who is the one that grabs hold of the shuttle, as the Masters are trying to escape, in order to rescue the Doctor from death? Bill. Who do we see carrying the Doctor’s body from the smoldering wreckage of the shuttle? Bill. Who does not simply go along with the Doctor’s order to follow Nardole and instead remains to fight the other Cybermen? Bill. Who goes back to get the Doctor’s body on the battlefield at  the end in order ensure his survival? Bill does. She saves the Doctor not once, but twice in this story. He saves her zero times.

Think of how her resolution compares to the other main characters. None of their story threads end well for them. The two Masters kill each other. Nardole leaves to assist the remaining humans in fighting the Cybermen, but we are told this ultimately will only delay the inevitable: they all will be converted. The Doctor himself is killed by the Cybermen. No one has a happy ending–except for Bill. And that happy ending occurred through her own doing. Heather did not show up because the Doctor called her. She didn’t show up because she just so happened to be passing by. She showed up because of Bill’s proactive behavior in the earlier story, The Pilot. If you recall, Bill sought out Heather’s friendship, not the other way around. The Doctor is not to thank for this. Bill ‘cast her bread upon the waters’ and ‘found it after many days,’ as the saying goes.

Judging by the Outer Appearance

In the second episode we get to see how people react to Bill. Even after learning that Bill is not a threat, the gut reaction of Hazran, an otherwise nice woman, is to shoot her on sight. Bill has to stay in the barn–and if you think it is a coincidence that she is hiding in a barn as runaway slaves in America had to do prior to the Civil War, you’re fooling yourself. The imagery of Bill in the barn is supposed to evoke this memory. People who were deemed scary had to be kept away from sight, so as not to upset anyone. This is deliberate.

On the inside, Bill is Bill, as the audience can see clearly. But for the characters, it is different. They see a Cyberman. This teaches kids that we should never be afraid of someone just because of the way they look. We shouldn’t judge them as bad or as threatening, just because of their appearance. In fact, it was an excellent choice by Steven Moffat, the writer, to have a child, rather than an adult, appreciate Bill for who she really is, as this not only shows that children can often be more perceptive (and less judgmental) than adults, but also it is aspirational for the children who observe it.

The Right Motivations for Our Actions

This message is not difficult to miss, as the Doctor explicitly gives it in a speech to the two Masters. In probably the most quoted lines from the entire 10th Series, he says, “Winning? Is that what you think it’s about? I’m not trying to win. I’m not doing this because I want to beat someone, or because I hate someone, or because, because I want to blame someone. It’s not because it’s fun and God knows it’s not because it’s easy. It’s not even because it works, because it hardly ever does. I do what I do, because it’s right! Because it’s decent! And above all, it’s kind.”

The point, of course, is that even though this show has its share of violence–it has action scenes, explosions, killings, and the like–when the Doctor engages in these sorts of actions, it is not for reasons that others might engage in them, even those we call heroes. For him, victory for its own sake is not a motivation. He doesn’t fight in order to get revenge, or even to punish an evildoer. His motivations are rooted in his empathy for others. At the risk of his own life, he will help, simply because it is the right thing, and the kind thing, to do.

Even the Worst Can Reform

In this story, we finally get to see the end of a thread that has run through all of Series 10. We wondered whether the Doctor did the right thing in saving Missy from execution and giving her the chance to change. It could very well have gone the other way: we wouldn’t have been surprised at all if she decided to side with her former self and continue along the road that she has long traveled. But that is not what happened. She sided with the Doctor.

When the Doctor gives the speech above, it was not for the benefit of the John Simm version of the Master. His hearts are too hard, and he quips: “This is the face that didn’t listen to a word you just said.” And initially, Missy tells the Doctor no, but we can see in her face that she is conflicted. Later, she tells her other self she is going to join the Doctor, “because he’s right. Because it’s time to stand with him. It’s where we’ve always been going, and it’s happening now, today. It’s time to stand with the Doctor.”

Keep in mind that the Master is probably the most evil character that has been portrayed in the show (with perhaps the exception of Satan). And here we see this person take the first step toward redemption. The message is clear: even the worst of the worst are capable of reform. There are echoes of Return of the Jedi here. If Darth Vader can change, anyone can, right? Well, same goes for the Master. Missy is even willing to go so far as to kill her past self to do this (a symbolic act that shows she is rejecting her previous ways).

One might conclude that once a person has been given a chance and rejected it, no further chances should be offered. But here we see that, even though the earlier Master explicitly and gleefully refuses to take the Doctor’s offer, his later self makes a different choice. It just goes to show that sometimes it’s all about the timing. At one point in a person’s life, they may not be ready to turn around. But at another point, they may be. And that is why we never stop trying. The Doctor is not one of those people who say, “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.” He doesn’t mind being fooled over and over again, as long as there is hope.  In his mind, no one is past the point of no return.